American Gods season 2, episode 5, “Ways of the Dead,” continues to kick down the walls of the novel and expand the stories of our new favorite characters.
For an episode that needs to start advancing the arc of the American Gods season 2 and potentially set up season 3, “The Ways of the Dead” utilizes the characters of Neil Gaiman’s novel who are given new life in the series. First, Salim and the Jinn tackle what faith versus belief means for the devout. Meanwhile, in New Orleans, Mad Sweeney and Laura’s arc send our writers for an emotional loop with their visit to Baron Samedi and Maman Brigitte.
“The Ways of the Dead,” contradicts its title in a sense. While Shadow literally spends his time under Ibis’ tutorship, the episode takes the opportunity to breathe new life into the story. The mythology continues to deepen as season 2 takes one the eight hours to reflect on the city of Cairo, paying special attention to the means by which a town’s inescapable cycle of suffering, keeps a god in business.
Here, our writers reflect on how these new character dynamics both elevate and complicate the original story.
‘American Gods’ season 2, episode 5 in conversation
Brittany: Parent’s always say use the bathroom before you get in the car… but perhaps they are more specific about not peeing on the plants. Which I have a question about actually. What is that plant? Because Salim and the Jinn still have the seed I was thinking about.
Natalie: This is really confusing as I did assume this planting was the seed. And yet, perhaps not. I know what this tree is – Yggdrasil, the World Tree, which definitely appears in the novel but not from seedling size.
Wednesday planting and growing it lends weight to how convoluted his whole plan is – he’s preparing for what we know is coming for Shadow. Yggdrasil is an important part of Norse Mythology. But then what the hell is the seed???
Brittany: A distraction? After all we did just visit a few trickster gods. I’m sure in good time we will discover more, but for now, with an empty bladder we can hit the road and obtain what Wednesday sent Salim and the Jinn for — Gungnir.
Natalie: I am assuming maybe the seed is another plant to help activate Gungnir, but yes – too many plants in Wednesday’s life right now. I kind of hated him lying to Shadow’s face – did you just piss on the plant – how dare you?! Why can’t he just say “yeah, I did, for special godly plant reasons.”
Brittany: Shadow would have been cool with that. But, Wednesday cannot help himself.
Natalie: FYI pissing on trees is actually advisable in some cases. Citrus, especially. It’s some enzyme or level of acidity. So it would have been valid! I have known more than one person who sends the men in their house to pee on their lemon tree.
Anyway, Wednesday leaves Shadow behind with that confusing nonsense to deal with, as you say.
Brittany: While the Jinn faces some confusion himself – namely why Salim is so into his god when a literal Jinn is standing before him. These two have some of the best on screen chemistry and not just in a romantic/couple way, but as scene partners sparing over these large ideas about blind faith versus believing in what is right in front of them.
Natalie: This is such a cool path to take the couple down, and such an inventive development of their first scene in the book.
Brittany: The Jinn’s combativeness plays so well against Salim’s resoluteness. I cannot get enough of them.
Natalie: It’s great fanfiction – ‘what issues would these two run into as a couple if we saw them again?’ And this is spot on.
Brittany: Salim and the Jinn are the perfect counter to Wednesday and Shadow’s story. The Jinn and Shadow ask questions that they believe can and in some cases should be answered with a simple reply. But Wednesday is withholding and Salim is so grounded in his faith that both Shadow and the Jinn are on fool’s errands — they will never get the answers they want.
Natalie: With this pair, I feel like it showcases the best in any character argument – you understand both sides. There’s no wrong or right there. For Salim, he does need the perspective that just because the Jinn is from the Arabic – now Islam – region, doesn’t mean he is a part of Islam, as he seemed to assume before.
And powerful monotheistic religions often do fold in old legends that predate them to help ease the passage for converts. Christmas, for example. Easter, we’ve seen in the show.
The Jinn speaks with experience that came before the birth of Islam, but his issue seems to be more about Salim’s choice to honor one god in particular despite all he’s seen.
Do you think he would rather Salim be – well, I guess we can’t say atheist – But throw away faith in light of the evidence? He seems upset that Salim’s experience with gods hasn’t caused him to realize that his god might be just as crappy as all the rest.
Brittany: Salim brings up a point when they are in the car with Wednesday saying, “I believe in the violence I saw, it doesn’t mean I have faith in it.” And Jinn doesn’t have a problem with Salim’s belief, what he has a problem with is, like you say, being closed off to the realization that his one god has flaws like the rest.
The Jinn was given a choice to convert to Islam or become a heretic demon, and he chose to be a demon. There are caveats to these grand sweeping messages of the gods and Salim is not making room for any doubt. Which on some level I admire, but again, see the other side of the coin as well.
Brittany: And where the Jinn attempts to level with Salim a bit and argue with facts Salim has seen with his own two eyes. Wednesday is there to pitch himself as a contender for worship. Salim’s one true god is taking up too much of the pie.
Natalie: What did you think of the Jinn’s argument about Thomas Jefferson when Salim tries to cite the Pillars of Islam? Jinn clearly thinks that no god practices what he preaches. Is that the core issue the gods are facing? Would things be better if everyone was more honest?
Brittany: That’s huge part of the issue – honesty. But it’s a double-edge sword. As a collective, the gods might benefit from a more even distribution of belief if they were honest. But at the same time, deviating from their message sets them up to lose out on their devout followers.
We’ve seen these holes being punched in other faiths – most recently with Bilquis’ explanation of Jesus’ rebellious years – and the Jinn resorting to an example of a man held up as a pillar of America, the land of equal opportunity being contradictory felt like an attempt to humanize the gods a bit. Salim came to America for a fresh start, to have find the promise for opportunity America tells the world is offered here. But it was the Jinn who gave it to him, not his god or the nation.
Natalie: And we also learn why the Jinn is such a “loyal” servant of Odin. This shocked me, but we did ponder before why he was so stalwart yet dispassionate.
Brittany: Beholden, but not a worshipper. And I do admire his commitment to upholding his duty to serve Wednesday without much question or complaining, unlike someone else we know… but that’s for later.
Natalie:I think the reveal that he is basically Odin’s slave – there is a lot of, you know, historical issue about consent with genies – Disney’s Aladdin or I Dream of Jeannie – is brilliantly contrasted in its placement. Salim and the Jinn have that heated discussion right between Wednesday being super playful and pretending they’re all best buds having fun.
He performs this crazy whimsical fallacy instead of just acting plainly about how things are. So if honesty is the issue, do you think Wednesday is achieving anything with his persona? Is it a tactic or something he can’t help, even if it’s counterproductive?
Brittany: Wednesday is achieving something, he is creating intrigue. Which, though it may not work on Salim, it keeps others coming back to him, if only to see what crazy thing happens next.
Now, I don’t know if that is going to work out for him in the long run in terms of sustained belief, but it is keeping Shadow in tow for now. And he is a showman, so there is certainly an element of uncontrollability when it comes to pimping himself out as the fun-loving, free-wheelin’, god of gods.
Also, WHY WERE THEY ALL SITTING IN THE FRONT SEAT. I love it.
Natalie: Because this show knows how to do humor very well! His bid for Salim’s loyalty in the middle of the boyfriends’ philosophical argument was just so funny and unexpected.
Who even comes up with that.
Brittany: The same people who brilliantly cast Lee Arenberg as Alviss, the tallest of the dwarves.
Natalie: Oh my gosh I thought of you instantly. I just knew you were going to lose your mind. How does this compare to your prior dwarf experience with him?
Brittany: It is incredibly on par. While he is not running around Once Upon a Time alerting the people to the latest threat invading their small town, he is still the grumpiest of grumps. It’s a level of anger and passive aggressiveness that he didn’t exactly get to lean into on a Disney property. An absolutely incredible move to bring Grumpy back into my life if only for this short bit of time.
Natalie: Well, it was perfect here even without this background. Alviss is again one of the Norse beings and it was interesting to see that even someone from Odin’s own past was a little skeptical of his plan.
Brittany: Taking Alviss’ character and turning him into a side trip was a great move to breakout the story and find a way for Salim and the Jinn to stick around with a purpose. Plus, it further expands Wednesday’s world, beyond the backstage meeting, and the pieces of the puzzle that we still need to find. Namely the person who can help uncover the runes that have been rubbed clean by time that will be required to power his 18 charms.
It’s all very “we need to unload a ton of exposition” but at least it was packaged with Salim and the Jinn added in.
Natalie: Runewise, maybe that is what the seed is for, to make some tincture to write them on.
Sajinn wise – my golly gosh. My fave part of their journey was when we exit the Hall of Alviss and once again, Wednesday tries to win Salim. It leads to this really deeply human exchange between the lovers, of Jinn chiding Salim for believing what he was taught – almost calling him a sheep – and that’s a common sort of angle for people with differing beliefs – especially when close – to butt heads at.
And Salim’s response was, in my opinion, really great – and one more people should have. “Why do you care what I believe?” He clearly doesn’t see it as a barrier between the pairing.
I always wonder how people who really deeply believe in different faiths, especially ones where their faith may teach that those who don’t believe are damned or whatever – do coexist in the same family or even marriage.
But Salim’s angle seems to be that his faith is for him and that it doesn’t affect what he thinks of others for their faith. It’s his own personal place to relate to the world and that’s just his own way.
Brittany: And Salim’s unshakeable faith should break him apart from the Jinn. But the Jinn asks if Salim is coming with him, he does. These two are going to be okay.
Natalie: Even though I admire Salim’s relationship with his faith, I still side with the Jinn on that killer line – you can have your own truth, but you can’t have your own facts. The world does need that lesson badly.
‘You’re entitled to your own truth, Salim. But not your own facts.”
I don’t know if the Jinn in this actual situation about Salim’s belief is in the right to challenge him, but as a wider statement – yes. All the yeses.
Brittany: And Wednesday still has to win Salim over, which may prove to be his greatest challenge to date. Perhaps more so than Shadow Moon.
Natalie: I don’t think he will succeed. Wednesday is being opportunistic for any follower but at the end of the day I don’t think he will get this one. I think that’s why we have Salim in the show – as a sort of example of healthy faith. I’m more interested if we will see him have any interactions with physical manifestations of Islam the way we’ve seen Jesus – or if he will continue to be an example of just the traditional faith in the mundane world.
Brittany: I like either option so long as it keeps Salim around. He does provide this unique, pure lens through which to see this all unfold.
Natalie: Maybe he will like the One True Believer every God wants in their corner and there will be a tug of war over him, ha. But off they go again on their little Boar-Bike.
Natalie: Back on the road, it seems like excess is the name of the game in New Orleans, so that tracks
Brittany: Excess is certainly the name of the game, but who cares when you have Jude looking out for you?
Natalie: Now there’s a man I’d like to meet onscreen in American Gods.
Brittany: What did you think when you first saw our boy in the streets?
Natalie: Just so silly and sad. What a mess. I love his statement “The whole fucking country’s a lost cause” before collapsing and am suddenly completely obsessed with the idea of St Jude being the solution to America’s problems… but how did she find him? Does she now see a shining beam of light wherever HE is?
He does say “Jude” and envisions this fuzzy glowing savior – then it sharpens into Laura – and THAT is loaded.
Do you see this as humor value of a drunk or some sort of foreshadowing that she’s the patron saint of his own personal lost cause? Laura is gracious enough to come back to him and isn’t even very defensive. She just asks not to be chided for her mistakes and he can’t help it a little but she knows she earned that chiding I think.
Brittany: Laura stepping into the fog to help a lost cause is, as you say, a very loaded visual. He has no luck without his coin and she is the only person who can reunite him with it. If it’s some kind of divine intervention, or plan from on high, well, that I can’t say for sure.
But she is there to literally get him off the ground and give him a reason to keep moving forward. Who knows how long he would have bummed around that town if she hadn’t shown up when she did.
He does have what looks like a behind the scenes access lanyard on, so he must have been on good behavior with the Christian rock group.
Natalie: I wonder what he did with the rock band. It’s nice to see them slip into friendship again at least for a while, you know, him recounting the story “you missed a lot on the way down.” As if they’d just had to get separate flights due to overbooking, not had a huge trust issues fight.
Brittany: Right and but I do think he shifts into an aloof mood and drops the friendship bit for their introduction to Baron Samedi and Maman Bridgitte. He is almost showing off his connections in a way, “Oh this one needs to be brought back to life, funny story she has my coin.” And then the quick shot of him drinking with the patrons while she sits alone.
He does keep an eye on her though…
Natalie: It’s all very tense. He keeps asking her “you sure you’re up for this?” It makes me wonder how much he knew of what was ahead. What was he worried she might not be up for?
Brittany: Perhaps the intimacy of it all. Not necessarily the sex bit, but facing the truth, actually giving over a part of herself to the process — trading a truth. She isn’t exactly forthcoming with what she wants.
But I’m not sure how much he actually knows about what the life force restoring process entails, aside from the sexy bit because he does not seem shocked about being seduced in the end. Angry sure, because he had to trade some truths that he might have been burying but we keep bringing to the surface, he’s hot on the “less decomposed” dead girl.
Natalie: There’s definitely some implications in the whole “chefs table” thing – and he says “must be a slow night… I mean the bar is called the Black Cock, which… lord.
But it was very interesting to see Sweeney embraced and Laura on the outside.
Brittany: The Chef’s table was definitely a courtesy extended toward Sweeney. And Sweeney drives that home saying that the favor request, to bring Laura back, would be coming from him. But ultimately, he has to leave her at the table for the resurrection to take place. Laura seems completely game, after tasting food and feeling goosebumps, getting flushed for the first time.
Natalie: What did you think of Samedi and Brigette as people, as friends, as gods?
Brittany: As friends, they are above average for associates of Mad Sweeney. As gods, I think their interactions with Sweeney and Laura are a better example of how gods benefit from worship. Samedi has a way of coercing what he wants out of his subjects – in this case truth – which works better than anything Wednesday has tried. It felt more natural. Granted he and Brigette are currently working two people who are already all in on the “backstage” of it all. As business owners, they seem to have it all figured out.
Natalie: I’m a fan. I didn’t see anything too sinister about them, but obviously the unhappy couple at the end is pissed for their own personal reasons.
Brittany: Right. It’s not the Baron’s fault they are a mess. He just held up a mirror.
Natalie: Let’s look at how they got there. Laura is so close to life even without the potion. She can eat, taste, feel.
Brittany: Thanks in part to the maggot removing elixir.
Natalie: So gross but useful. It would be cool if that was enough to keep her going, but she needs more.
Brittany: In order for the resurrection to take place, the Baron must be left alone with Laura and that leaves Sweeney and Maman Bridgitte to discuss… other things. But before we get to what they discuss and do, the Baron and Laura start out with something simple – a conversation, as he prepares the potion for her to take. It’s a conversation we’ve heard before, mostly coming from Wednesday and bit from Sweeney, listing out all of Laura’s shortcomings as a wife and lover to Shadow Moon.
The Baron sets her in contrast to his relationship with Bridgitte. He may sleep around, but when he is with Bridgitte, she is worshiped. It may not make sense on the surface to Laura, but there is something deeper between them. Laura cannot say the same.
Were you anticipating such a tame and slow roll out of the plan?
Natalie: So where I’m at about this is… sort of at a crossroads. All these people keep telling Laura what she is and isn’t. She’s basically our heroine, so… are we meant to believe these things? Or are we meant to rebel against them with her? Is the key to her future accepting these things and stop denying them? Or is it shaking them off and proving she’s different?
I really think it could go either way. What about you?
Brittany: It is set up to go either way. I do however feel her being pulled away from Shadow and growing into her own person should she get her life back. To get her life back, however, she needs to figure out the final piece of the potion puzzle, which I think will be the deciding factor. Right now, she is just “Poor Laura Moon with so many lies she cannot see and so many vows she cannot keep.”
Natalie: Before Sweeney and Brigette head out, the entire dinner table scene was just some of the most pointed staring of all time. Everyone had a loaded stare in reaction to something. Which was your favorite loaded stare?
Brittany: When Sweeney turned back to get his coat as he left the table. One last look.
Natalie: In that scene, I really liked Sweeney kind of throwing daggers at them starting to sexually awaken her, but Samedi had a great one after Sweeney says what he needs – to retake his property and send her back to her husband.
For some reason I feel more secure about Samedi reading Laura than Wednesday. Samedi has no reason to lie or push her in any direction. No reason to manipulate. He literally only wants the truth.
What did you make of Laura’s declaration of truth – what she’d do with her life? Was it a confirmation that she would continue to just fuck around, or something deeper?
Brittany: What is her declaration of truth? Sleeping with him?
Natalie: I mean, physically, yes. He asks what she’s going to do with her life… perhaps she means, simply, live it. Be present in it.
Brittany: If the act itself was her giving her truth, then I think it’s taking what she wants, not seeing it as shitty impulse control like she mentions to the Baron a few moments earlier. Making decisions for herself and not for Shadow (or whomever).
Natalie: I think that’s a positive way to look at it. To embrace her truth healthily.
Brittany: Because she doesn’t say anything, so I’m just reading the act. I’d imagine that she could have pictured anyone in that fantasy, but maybe there is something to do with Bridgette sleeping with Sweeney that ties him into the ordeal. Either way, she is going to need to accept him as part of her journey sooner or later, and not be ashamed by it. They both are.
Natalie: They’re so deliciously repressed.
Brittany: All I can say is that if this series follows the Sweeney of the books, she better not get those two drops of blood in Cairo in a few weeks.
Natalie: Oh, it’s Sweeney’s blood going in that bottle for sure but I will freaking end you for saying it like that.
Brittany: I’m sorry, but that’s where my head is at after the episode 7 synopsis came out. And they are in a BAD spot right now for her to ask for blood, you know, just in case.
Natalie: If we are talking plain literal sexuality, Laura has a lot to consider from the Baron and Brigitte. Their open relationship is really healthy and Laura comes from a life where she couldn’t imagine that as a possibility. Maybe her truth is about making her own way in love with her own rules – rules everyone involved is comfortable with – instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole of what her life has to be.
Maybe he dies FOR her? I will die for them if that happens. How awful. It’s unrealistic to expect a happy ending here but I can’t handle it.
Brittany: One or both are going to die and I have a few weeks to come to terms with that.
Natalie: But they’re leads and we have season 3 yet to come…. please… save me from this.
Brittany: Well, we have the comfort that this is a MUTUAL infatuation as Bridgitte comes on to Sweeney who, for lack of a better phrase, can only get it up for a fight or dead girl. He’s smitten. But damnit he will be unhappy about it!
Natalie: Do you think these merging sexual projections do confirm it’s mutual?
We know it’s him, for sure. Is she being shown something she was not yet aware of, or did she have something brewing as well?
Brittany: Well that’s kind of what I was trying to get at before? Were they only connected because Bridgitte AND the Baron were involved? I think she has something brewing for a long time, but she isn’t acknowledging it because of her one-woman mission to save Shadow on her borrowed time.
However, I’d like to think that the Baron asking for a truth, and this mesh of bodies being the result, coerced this realization into the light for her.
Natalie: So, you think that this fantasy could be her payment in truth? Oooof.
The other option is that Brigette and Baron wanted to bang on the astral plane and stuck Laura and Sweeney together against their will, which…. lol. They’re in love, people.
Brittany: I mean, the latter is what I THINK happened based on the morning after awkwardness on Sweeney’s part. But the former is something I’m growing more intrigued with as a possibility for Laura’s payment. Something was presented to her, what is she going to do about it?
Obviously get mad and defensive and try to storm away from this big giant bear cub of a leprechaun who can barely make eye contact with her.
Natalie: I think the latter is what THEY think happened. Or what they want to think happened. Poor bashful babies.
Brittany: Angry, angry people too. My goodness their final scene CRUSHED me. It was a very “now kiss” moment
Natalie: It was harsher than I was expecting. I was so rose-tinted. I was like “they’re going to grab each other.” But NO. Unlike Aaron Burr, I am not willing to wait for it.
I find the reaction that the Voudons screwed them over interesting. That’s some serious sublimation. Like… they really didn’t mess with y’all, guys.
Brittany: We do get quite the performance out of Pablo Schreiber, who goes through a full spectrum of emotions. Bashful, angry, VERY angry, sad, scared, ashamed. It was a JOURNEY.
And you’re right. To turn it all back on the death loa, to make it into a trick, the same way that Laura said it was all Wednesday’s fault, the two just cannot move past being manipulated.
They use it as a defense instead of feeling anything. [thinks butterfly meme “Is this manipulation?”]
Brittany: And his voice breaking when he says he hates Wednesday more than she will ever know.
Natalie: The Wednesday accusation is awful. The idea that she could build that idea instead of the idea that he like… cares…is so cruel.
Brittany: Compiled with the secret horde of her own, hiding the potion from him.
Natalie: What happened last night was CERTAINLY not part of anyone’s plan, that’s for sure. Like we saw with the Jinn – here is one of Wednesday’s warriors revealing to the person he truly cares for that he is an unwilling accomplice and that he hates Wednesday.
Despite all the jollies Wednesday parades around acting like everyone has a choice in the matter. What do you think of that?
Brittany: It’s high time we start acknowledging that for all the wheeling and dealing that Wednesday is trying to do, the only way he’s been able to drum up support thus far is to essentially call upon debts and favors.
Sure, they had some fun with mermaids at one time, but Sweeney what else was Sweeney going to do in that moment in the car? Stay quiet and not play into Wednesday’s hype when the number one sales target was in the back seat?
There’s always a level of desperation with Sweeney, which we instinctively tie to the coin. But I think it’s also out of what Laura says to him – that he wants a war, but cannot get one unless he is tied to Wednesday. He’s got no freedoms under Wednesday’s thumb – he is not even allowed to ride the carousel. Sweeney was a King. But what is he reduced to now?
I think it flips the script at a nice moment with the Jinn and Sweeney debunking a few beliefs and taking Wednesday down a peg or two in Laura and Salim’s eyes. But then again, it still leaves Wednesday with the upper hand and the same question that Shadow has spreads to Laura and Salim – what exactly is the extent of Wednesday’s hold over those he has on his side?
Natalie: What happens if they don’t go along with it? He has some genuine followers now, but only because he had a few forced ones at the start to help him look like he had some already.
Brittany: Morale in the court of House Wednesday is quite low. I do want to talk about Sweeney’s cursing a bit.
After Laura kicks Sweeney while he’s down, she storms out. And there is the moment when he is alone where he touches back on his Gaelic roots. For Sweeney and everyone on this show for that matter, colloquial modern curses are more natural than adverbs.
But for Sweeney to revert back to his native tongue and use the phrases that translate to “A bad ending upon you,” and “A plague on your house” is VERY telling how hurt he is. Back home, when he was worshipped, this would have been the equivalent of him cursing her out with any string of words. It doesn’t sound bad, but the history tells us it is. I do think there is something too in the calm way he tosses them into the universe.
Then, of course, he cannot light his cigarette because his luck has gone and walked away.
Natalie: A curse for a curse – she accused him of not having his own war to die in, which was his own doomed fate. A little bit “if you stand for nothing, Sweeney, what’ll you fall for.”
But he obviously doesn’t want that for her when thinking rationally. He is hurt, offended, not seen.
Do you think this will have consequences he doesn’t actually want?
Brittany: Right now, they need to cool off. And just to clarify, I didn’t take it as a literal curse, but a linguistic choice that really drove home the point of how hurt he was in that moment. That only words from his home land could do it justice, almost in the same way Anansi reverts to a different dialect when he starts to become passionate in his speeches.
The consequences are going to be from their stubbornness.
Brittany: Or, to be a little sillier, when Petra Solano starts swearing in Czech when drunk on Jane the Virgin. But yes. He’s thinking back to who he was, and where he came from, because of what Laura accused him of.
Natalie: Do you think that if he had told the truth about how he felt Laura would believe him? He did try to say “hey, we both got messed up here” but I guess she came in first with the Wednesday accusations.
There are few things more hurtful than your pure and loving actions being twisted and disbelieved as some evil motive.
Brittany: Perhaps if he did, like you mention get a word in right before the Wednesday line. But honestly, I don’t think she would have believed him. I think the Wednesday line would have arose just as naturally if he did reveal his truth to her. She is still in a very defensive and confused place, her clock is still ticking.
I also think she would have to really sit on that thought because she has this potion that needs 2 drops of blood coursing with love. Would she risk wasting it if Sweeney did turn out to be lying on Wednesday’s behalf? [finds manipulation butterfly meme again]
Natalie: So do you think he is the magic ingredient? It definitely feels set up that way.
Brittany: I do. 100%. Which is why it will be so tragic in a few weeks and I may not recover.
Natalie: Two drops, that ain’t gonna kill anyone, it could be perfectly fine. Just a prick of the finger.
Brittany: Or wiped off his face after a tragedy. I mean who is to SAY?
Natalie: I can’t believe they’ve made this actually into a whole thing. And that the thing will now kill me.
Brittany: Let’s get back to Cairo where if war won’t bring the bodies to Ibis’ door, the haunting story of William James will. Shadow is left alone in all his finery to learn the “Ways of the Dead” including a haunting dream of a former resident of the town of Cairo.
There are a few elements of the book loosely tossed around in here, but the depiction of Shadow taking a knife to his throat not of his own accord was new. Let’s start there and unpack the connection to James. What did you first think when you saw Shadow’s head on fire, being coerced against his will?
Natalie: I was just so. So. so confused. I honestly had no idea what was going on and wasn’t expecting any of this. In the book, Shadow’s time in sleepy Cairo is peaceful, quiet, full of hard and ultimately human work.
I was not expecting any sort of Cairo conflict in this way, let alone burning heads and gunshot stigmata. I guess you could say I was as confused and disturbed as Shadow.
Brittany: And not just the visuals, but the warning before James leaves the mirror, “memento mori,” remember that you have to die” is not the type of thing you want a ghost or spirit whispering to you before you’ve had your cup of coffee.
Natalie: Memento Mori is a famously foreshadowy phrase, that is for sure. “REMEMBER YOU WILL DIE.”
I don’t know if you’re a GoT fan, but they even convert it into that worldbuilding as Valar Morghulis – all men must die. Famously doomy! So Not Good Here!
Brittany: I do not partake in the game of thrones, but the sentiment is definitely not great. Ibis does not seem too shocked by this revelation of Shadow’s and, as a natural story teller, passes down the history that keeps the doors of Ibis and Jacquel’s parlor open – Will James haunts the likes of Cairo because it was in Cairo where his spilled blood did not change anything inside the people he looked to as equals.
All he did was cross a street and when a woman ended up dead, it was his fault.
As Ibis points out that when you are convinced the rules are stacked against you, the worst outcomes are not possible, but probable. He was lynched, shot, dragged around, and then abandoned by everyone.
We watch Nancy witness the same cycle 115 years later as another man trapped by his circumstance gets killed, the same wounds appear on his skin. The odds were against that family, and they believed them to be, there was no escaping and so the worst scenario was probable.
Which is why Ruby needs to get away from Cairo, to break the cycle. But these two examples speak to a much larger issues that still exist today. There is a god of death walking us through a tiny microexample of American history that his counterpart Jaquel is almost, perpetuating?
Natalie: : This is a horrific and true story – I did this bit of research. Will James’ 1909 murder was real and the case was used as a way to get some anti-lynching legislation made and more fair protection for black people in small towns – at least in Illinois.
This is real Cairo history. But perpetuating is the word I think about as well. This isn’t a good look for Ibis, to let this specter bring him “clients.”
Brittany: Which is exactly what Nancy brings to light here – Ibis and Jaquel are feeding into that deeply rooted American identity of this town, where he can bring in the bodies by fueling the racist fires of Cairo. Pushing an already marginalized community over the edge and through his doors.
Natalie: I understand why the show wanted to use this Cairo story once coming across it, but it makes some pretty innocent book characters look pretty bad. It’s a good angle to have Nancy come in on – a continuation of his debate with Ibis and Bilquis about putting their African descendants first.
Brittany: Right, and Nancy says very pointedly – if you are killing brown bodies, you are killing my worshippers.
Natalie: It’s frankly really shitty of Ibis and it brings up that idea of what comes first – it’s that American Dream capitalist “me first” attitude at play. “This country has done things to us.”
Ibis is trying to get his, not protect the people in his care. I really wouldn’t have expected that, but it showcases how some people are so embedded in their own ways that they don’t take into account the way the world moves around them.
Ibis’s statements the other week about how “we didn’t used to be colored” ring a bit different now – he remembers when these racial tensions weren’t a thing and sort of doesn’t care that they are now. His resistance to join any sort of war could come across as reluctance to stand up for what’s right morally.
But it’s an interesting thing to pack within Wednesday’s cause, because you know he doesn’t give a shit about any of this.
Brittany: And that is the attitude on the part of Ibis is what I think the show wants to highlight by placing him in this particular subplot. Will James says to Shadow later on, loosely quoting Ecclesiastes, “the way of the dead is to know nothing of the living.”
Basically, the living know they are going to die and the dead have nothing, but a memory if they are lucky. Ibis doesn’t trade in lives that are remembered. Which is a truly sad, sad commentary.
Natalie: Ibis is very much like “I don’t care about anyone until they’re dead.” And what’s interesting is that his partner Jacquel, last season, Anubis, we saw him at work with Mrs Fadil, remember?
He cares about the weight of a life.
What’s his say in all this? They are partners, after all. I guess Chris Obi had some other commitment but we do see him in dog form.
Brittany: Right without that counter to Ibis, it’s every death god for himself. And so, I think Jaquel leading Shadow to Will James was the step to using him as a vehicle to regain balance. Shadow becomes the mouthpiece to give meaning to Will James’ life by carrying his burden and delivering the message at the funeral service.
Natalie: There must be some sort of partnership when comes down to not dealing with anything until after death, but I think Jacquel might see things a bit differently so I would like to see an argument or discussion between the pair.
Do you see that testimony as the curse being broken, or will it continue?
Brittany: No, I think Shadow did his part. The Reverend is broken and realizing the unfortunate circumstances of the community, Ruby is getting out, progress is being made no matter how small it is.
I would think Wednesday knows that Jaquel needed Shadow in some capacity here, based on the way they are all chummy in the end. And that “favor” for lack of a better word is going to play into Wednesday’s hand at the right time.
Natalie: What is it you think Shadow needed to learn from all this?
Brittany: I feel like a broken record at this point, but maybe it’s just because I’m siding with Nancy a lot lately — he needs to stop asking the wrong questions.
I am not sure what the right questions are, but Shadow is a vehicle for change here.
Not just because he literally was a vehicle tonight for Will James, but he is the person who can drive the war forward. I think he needed to learn that if he allows himself to be open to something – that’s not magic, not a trick – he can make action happen. That things are not just happening to him all the time.
Granted, he was kind of possessed by Will James’ spirit, that happened TO him. He is tied to these gods whether he likes it or not, he might as well have a beer.
Natalie: If I were him, I would be so infuriated by the three gods drinking and laughing at him after that experience. Even though Nancy and Ibis had this conflict they’re united here with Wednesday.
Brittany: I think I would have taken to beer. Still said Fuck you, but taken the beer and sat there.
Natalie: And to me it’s sort of representative that none of these gods really truly care about how people feel and how this affects them. The priest is a good example, to circle back a little. His utter raw meltdown about faith and goodwill.
That was pretty awful, and the human consequences really don’t seem to matter much to the gods who need humans to thrive.
But what’s another monotheist I suppose.
Brittany: Exactly, I think Nancy’s “Amen” is really telling in that moment. He is almost reveling in the fact that this monotheist is wavering in his faith.
Natalie: It seems like what they’re gunning for is to drive people away from chosen faith for the sake of faith, and gain followers through proof. Wednesday’s pitch to Salim is the same. They’re all like “but we are real gods, witness our power” – and they aren’t taking into account how much faith WITHOUT proof is what GAVE them the powers initially.
They gained power through faith! Literally! This is a circle!
Brittany: Save your party tricks, sir!
What do you think is next for Bilquis? Are she and Ruby going to have the human-god relationship we want to see?
Natalie: These are an unusual pair. No one is saying it’s romantic, but it’s Bilquis, so.
Brittany: Or is she another worshipper taken by the god of love? I imagine we are are going to get into a bit of what we talked about last week, seeing Bilquis embrace the humanity of it all and get a sense of what’s in Ruby’s best interest.
Natalie: Who is Ruby in all of this? Why her? It feels very I Can Show You The World
Brittany: That’s her Tinder bio.
Natalie: Excuse me, her SHEBA bio. She does have her own app for it after all. But LOL. Is Ruby someone you want to see learn the secrets of the Gods as Salim has?
Brittany: I would like every old god to have a human counter part. Like a daemon.
Natalie: Oh my god. That’s a crossover. Whose god would you want to be the daemon of then?
Brittany: Is that even a question? Sweeney.
Natalie: His daemon is dead.
Natalie: Maybe if every god makes a human friend they will learn what really matters about belief… I think I said before that Wednesday needs to do actual market research!!!
Brittany: Can’t teach an old god new tricks.
Natalie: But seriously, until now, Ibis was the one god I really thought was, you know, a good person with a good heart – maybe Bilquis too. This darker look at Ibis’ intentions was tough actually. Not to mention the truth of the Will James story.
Brittany: Ibis was a huge bummer here. Especially because I am LOVING Demore Barnes
But I do appreciate them complicating his story in a new way. It was unexpected and for a show to keep adding these layers and still making the notes of the book shine through, I think is quite the achievement.
Natalie: I honestly can’t get into the sickness of the lynching audience – it’s one of the most insane things about humanity to me, that until pretty recently, public executions, legal or not, were things crowds enjoyed. It’s insane to me that that was normal for many centuries.
We dehumanize each other in different ways now, but it always disgusts me to see because it reminds me that society could go back to that at any minute.
Brittany: I went to a pub in Scotland a few months ago called “The Last Drop” that was operating when the attending a hanging at the gallows were still a public event and people took the prisoners there for their last drink.
It felt so far removed in a city hundreds of years older than America. But you’re right, when put into the context of just 100 years ago it is a sobering reminder of how little we’ve progressed and how easily we could fall backwards.
Natalie: And what did you make of Shadow as Will seeing the victim as Laura?
Brittany: The Laura visual was a great parallel to show the modernity of the situation. To remind Shadow that Will James was just going about his life and then one thing sets all the rules against him.
And for the rest of his days, he is fighting a losing battle with no one in his corner, just observers. I think Shadow sees himself in that story, but also fights against it when we see him confront Will James’ head later saying, “there is always hope.”
Natalie: And most of all, how much does Wednesday actually expect Shadow to take? 2 lynchings is 2 too many. I’m campaigning for zero lynchings in season 3. This one per season nonsense is not doing it for me.
American Gods season 2 airs Sundays at 8:00 p.m. ET on Starz.